social theory midterm results: a behavioral approach

Eighty percent of success is showing up. – Woody Allen

I have a hypothesis, shared by many social scientists, that life course outcomes are highly correlated with self-discipline. If you are the kind of person who can follow the rules, you’ll probably do well. This is an average statement, of course. In certain contexts, rule breaking is wonderful, but life usually requires rule following and a measure of self-discipline.

To test this hypothesis, I conducted a simple statistical test with data from my social theory class (N=73). I collected two behavioral/discipline variables: did the students show up to two randomly selected classes and did students use their “free pass,” which allows them to skip a daily writing assignment. I then merged attendance, assignment completion, and midterm performance data.

The results:

  • Skipping the daily writing assignment is *not* correlated with midterm performance, except for “extreme skipping.” A handful of students skipped four or more daily write ups, thus wildly exceeding the “free pass” rule. They score 19% less than the rest of the class.
  • Attendance is correlated with midterm performance. Class skipping is associated with a 10.1% grade drop.
  • In the OLS model with dummies for attendance on either day and skipping 1, 2, 3 and 4 (or more), the results are the same.

The R-squared?  .27!!! Wow. Knowing nothing else about the students, like GPA, SAT, or SES, I can account for a lot of variance by just seeing if they show up and hand in assignments.

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Written by fabiorojas

November 17, 2011 at 2:04 pm

8 Responses

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  1. The problem here may be endogeneity. If your grades (dependent variable) depend heavily on how well they live up to your standards (the two independent variables) the model may not be statistically sound.



    November 17, 2011 at 9:12 pm

  2. Can I get your permission to add these findings to my syllabi?



    November 17, 2011 at 11:49 pm

  3. Showing up is important, of course. It is necessary, but not sufficient. You also have to do the homework. The more homework you do, the better your grade. Back in a community college physics class, the instructor was following the drill, doing the homework on the board. (“How you do number 5?”) Then he stopped. He said something like “You will go out in the backyard and shoot hoops with your friends for 45 minutes and you won’t make one shot and you will still claim that you had a good time. How long did you spend on number 5 before you gave up?”

    It’s a little different in social science – except for stats – where what counts is the reading you do, especially the works behind the works.


    Michael Marotta

    November 18, 2011 at 12:09 am

  4. great study! Impressive that you got those result with only sampling 2 classes.


    Charles Seguin

    November 18, 2011 at 12:46 am

  5. Hi,
    this echoes work done by my colleague Ruth Woodfield at Sussex Uni, which looked at a large range of variables (public/private schooling, parentel occupation, previous exam results etc) and concluded that:
    “the rate at which a student attends emerges as the strongest predictor of degree outcome amongst a number of variables examined.” – Woodfield, Jessop & McMillan (2006) Studies in Higher Education 31(1): 1–22 at 1.

    See also Halperns: Attendance in Higher Education: does it matter?

    I always cite this paper in the first lecture of the first year, to explain to UGs why it’s in their interest to trun up to seminars.


    Adam Hedgecoe

    November 18, 2011 at 12:35 pm

  6. Looks like Woody Allen was wrong — only 27 percent of success is showing up.


    Steve Vaisey

    November 18, 2011 at 7:18 pm

  7. Knowing little about the students, your study runs the risk of spurious correlation. I believe strongly in the work ethic, things like doing homework, showing up on time,coming to class having done the reading, taking advantage of all opportunities to learn–and to improve your grade. In some worlds, these are called “middle-class” values, and they are trained. They are also easier to implement when there is less pressure in your life, like a job or a family that is depending upon you for support. Students who find a way to put the effort in will do better in your class; this is good. But it’s much easier for some students to find a way than others, and it’s not all about what’s going on in the classroom.


    David S. Meyer

    November 18, 2011 at 7:45 pm

  8. @jt: Yes, feel free to cite.

    @Adam Hedgecoe: Good cite!

    @David Meyer: Of course, you are correct. Perhaps employment, family wealth, and finances may account for this finding. My hypothesis is that this will account for some, but not all, variation. For every student who works 40 hours to pay for school, there’s a few more on the party circuit. The next time I get a large lecture class, I will test your hypothesis. At the first day, I’ll ask about employment,financial aid, and partying.

    Of course, if you think these results are spurious, you can do you own study. I would love to see your results.



    November 18, 2011 at 8:16 pm

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